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After Court Victory, Edgewood Finds Clout in Austin

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San Antonio--The Edgewood school district here has won its case in court. Now it must tackle a task many claim will be far more difficult--making its case to the Texas legislature.

For nearly 20 years, James R. Vasquez, Edgewood's superintendent of schools, unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature to change the state's school-funding formula. Last October, after five years of litigation, the Edgewood district emerged the victor of a landmark case in which the Texas Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to devise a fairer system by May 1.

The court's decision in Edgewood v. Kirby gives his district unusual influence, Mr. Vasquez said.

In previous sessions, he recalled, "the legislature would never deal with us because we never had any clout." The court's decision gives Edgewood clout, he said, and "we're going to use it."

But Edgewood is not the only district making its presence felt in Austin, the state capital. The Houston school district, for example, bused 55 parents to the Capitol last month to meet with lawmakers.

Such efforts will increase in frequency as the legislature's special session on education continues, district lobbyists said. The legislature convened last month to craft a new funding formula. (See Education Week, March 7, 1990.)

And, despite the wide differences in financial status and needs among the state's 1,060 school districts, most seem to agree on what should be done. While fissures may develop as lawmakers focus on more specific legislative proposals, district lobbyists now are united around a common goal--more state money for the schools.

Change in Strategy

For Mr. Vasquez and other officials of the Edgewood school district, the change of venue from the courtroom to legislative chambers requires a change in strategy.

In court, Edgewood officials said, they argued against the current system. But now they must argue for a specific plan in the legislature.

As the lead plaintiff in the case, Mr. Vasquez said at a press conference here held the day before the special session began, the Edgewood district will play "a crucial role" in the legislature's deliberations.

"We've won the case," said Al Kauffman, the district's lawyer. "We will collect on our judgment."

Mr. Kauffman pointed to language in the opinion directing lawmakers to pass a long-term solution to the state's school-funding woes.

"The decision was very explicit: 'A band-aid will not suffice; the system itself must be changed,"' he said. "That's probably the most important quote in the entire case."

Equality Plan

Edgewood officials support the Equality Plan, sponsored by Senator Hector Uribe and Representative Gregory Luna. The plan creates a countywide tax base for school districts, while also increasing state funding by a total of $5.6 billion over three years.

The plan "responds to all the ma8jor issues we felt we had to address," Mr. Vasquez said in an interview. It was drafted with the input of the district and its lawyers, he said.

Added Mr. Luna at the press conference: "This is the only plan that I think will answer the court's request." He acknowledged, however, that the plan was "a tough sell."

Mr. Vasquez said he would be "making my journeys to Mecca" to lobby for the plan over the next few weeks.

"This is an issue that can't be kicked around anymore," he vowed. ''We're saying that the court order has put us in the front pew. The same guys who've been putting us off are the guys who are going to have to change their attitude."

But one key lawmaker noted that Edgewood and other poor districts may be overestimating the opinion's impact. The court's ruling does not dictate which plan the legislature should adopt, warned Senator Carl A. Parker, and many legal experts disagree over what kind of plan will satisfy the court.

Mr. Parker, who chairs the Senate education committee, said the plaintiffs sometimes "remind me of the little kid thumping his chest and saying, 'You'd better do right or my big brother will take care of you."'

"I'm not sure big brother is going to be there to the extent that they think he'll be there," added Mr. Parker, who nevertheless supports the plaintiffs in their bid for more funds.

Houston's Lobbying 'Partners'

The scores of other lobbyists that have joined Edgewood officials in descending on the capital in the past few weeks represent both individual districts and such statewide associations as the Equity Center and the Texas Council of Urban School Districts.

The Houston district's "Partners in Education" program, which brought the bus full of parents to Austin on the first day of the session, was established in 1987, according to Larry Yawn, the district's assistant superintendent for external relations.

The trip "kind of kicked the whole thing off in an effective way," Mr. Yawn said. Parents visited with Houston-area representatives and members of the House and Senate education committees.

While Houston officials do not support any one plan for fixing the system, Mr. Yawn said, parents distributed a brochure outlining "some general principles."

The district supports the concept of local control, for instance, and opposes any changes its officials think might undermine such control. It also opposes countywide or regional tax bases for education, such as those proposed in the Equality Plan.

Along with the seven other of the state's largest districts, Houston is a member of the Texas Council of Urban School Districts.

The urban council has issued a "legislative program" listing 13 objectives. It opposes caps on local spending for enrichment programs, and requests that any new state mandates be accompanied with the requisite funding.

Unlike the council, the Equity Center--a group of 264 poor districts, many of which were plaintiff-interveners in the case--has drafted its own finance plan. It is sponsored by Senator H. Tati Santiesteban.

The center's plan would add about $10.5 billion in state aid over 5 years. But Craig Foster, executive director of the center, said he realizes the legislature probably will not adopt his or any other plan as written.

"The most important thing is, how much money are they willing to commit?" he said. Several other plans that have been proposed would also "do a fine job" of creating equity, Mr. Foster added.

Uncommon Unity

Many lobbyists and lawmakers agreed last week that the state's school districts appear uncommonly unified for the special session.

Wealthy suburban districts have "historically been our adversaries,'' said Robby Collins, director of governmental relations for the Dallas Independent School District.

This year, however, urban and suburban districts are in agreement, he said.

"I think we realize that we can all move together or not move at all," Mr. Vasquez said.

The districts' efforts have evoked a generally positive response from lawmakers.

Senator Cyndi Krier, a member of the Senate education committee, said she thought there was "a healthy balance" among all the different groups and lobbyists. "I try to listen to them all, and they sort of balance themselves out," she said.

Mr. Parker added that many districts have taken "a more visible role" during the special session.

Districts such as Edgewood and others involved in the suit "may have a mandate," he said. "But now Harris County [Houston] schools are seeing they have a stake, too."

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